Politics & Policy

Mr. President, Meet the Benedictines

Looking forward to commencement.

On Friday, May 11, President Bush will deliver the commencement address at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Some faculty of the college have released an open letter criticizing the president for his foreign policy. Here is an open address, so to speak (or write), to the faculty of St. Vincent’s, in anticipation of the president’s visit.

Having grown up over the mountain in Johnstown, I have had a long attachment to St. Vincent College. I remember going over to the Archabbey for a summer retreat when I was in about the eighth grade. The artist Karen Laub Novak in 1963 executed a set of 17 prints on the Apocalypse (the first artist since Dürer to do such a series). The monks spotted the set in a New York City gallery, American Associated Artists, and bought the set for St. Vincent College — one of only two institutions (Yale is the other) to possess the whole set. The reason I know this is that the artist and I went to Rome that fall for the Second Session of the Second Vatican Council, on our honeymoon, she to execute the lithographs, and I to write on the Council.

Later, while lecturing at a sister college of St. Vincent, St. John’s in Minnesota, I heard the oldest monk in the room slap his knee during the question period, and exclaim, as no one without a uniquely Benedictine perspective could: “That’s the trouble with our church. Every four or five centuries we fall into a mess, and someone has to straighten it out!” Every four or five centuries, you bet!

For such reasons, I was glad to learn that the president of the United States, from the hundreds of invitations he receives each spring, is coming to honor this year’s graduates at St. Vincent. It’ll be neat to think of the president up in my neck of the woods.

My family lived on the mountain to the west of Johnstown, and so St. Vincent was just a couple of valleys over. I remember, on the way over, the band playing in the Ligonier town square, under the gazebo, then the beauty of the rolling green hills further west, and the driveways that curl up to elegant estates. I remember a ski trip in the dead of winter, and the scent of the pine needles topped with snow.

In the classical Benedictine tradition, there will no doubt be some courteously voiced faculty dissent to some of the president’s policies. It wouldn’t be Benedictine if someone didn’t take objection to whatever comes along. And it wouldn’t be America if presidents didn’t evoke disagreement wherever they go.

I can think of many reasons to object to some of the policies of this president today — and all the presidents of my life-time, going back to FDR. Yet it’s always easier to object to policies of the current president, because the full consequences and meanings of actions taken now cannot possibly be as clear as they will become some 50 years hence.

Meanwhile, I hope that the graduating class of 2007 is proud to have the president in their midst. I suspect they will find him surprisingly close to Catholic concerns — not only because of his brother Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and a Catholic — but also because of GW’s own way of thinking, especially on the beginning and the end of life, the spread of liberty to all peoples, the common good of Muslims and Christians alike, compassion for the poor, and economic policies that bring the poor jobs and income, not only welfare.

The graduates should test the president out as a Catholic thinker — to see if he is at least as near to being pretty good on the subject as a Methodist can be. He has kept a number of Catholics on his closest staff, especially in policy areas. He knows just war thinking pretty well, not the way a professor does, but the way a practitioner does, who has to meet those requirements in practice.

At the University of Notre Dame a few years back, I heard President Bush stress that the first law of democracy is the principle of association (the “little platoons” of neighborhoods, across the whole nation). For instance, most of the colleges and universities in the United States, like St. Vincent, were not built by the State but by local associations — by a lot of bake sales, a lot of fund raisers, a lot of private energy — one building at a time. Some of my friends on the ND faculty were intent on dissent that day, but walked away with some admiration for key points the president had made, especially about the role of associations in achieving the common good.

I suspect that if scholars took the top fifty speeches of the president’s two terms — just pick any important ones, at important events — they would find a good chunk of a very good Catholic education, and a big slice of a sound liberal arts education.

But most of all, I hope that this president, in particular, learns about the Benedictines. He will be comforted by their great sense of perspective — “every five centuries or so” — and by their long tradition of generosity to the stranger. He would admire, if he gets a chance to participate, and possibly be touched by, the prayerful way in which the Benedictines, from the oldest to the youngest, pray the liturgy, and sing the ancient chants.

He will almost certainly enjoy learning about the long Benedictine tradition of democracy — the election of priors and abbots. And someone should recite for him a long list of the cities of Europe (and some other Continents) that grew up around a monastery, whose libraries and “scientific” methods of agriculture (for their time) showed hunter-gatherer peoples how to farm so profitably that they no longer lived hand-to-mouth, but built cities, erected great chapels, choir schools, academies, early hospitals, and, in short, Western civilization.

I think he may be sympathetic to the long tradition of self-supporting labor in the Benedictine monasteries — farming, yes, but also hops for beer-making, and grapes for wines and brandies; cakes for export; and architects and master-builders, and inventors, down through the ages, of labor-saving pulleys, harnesses, magnifying glasses, and other devices.

I hope the president leaves St. Vincent better educated about the civilizing role of the Benedictine order. Admittedly, it’s hard for a faculty anywhere to learn anything from a president that they don’t already know. But some ought, at least, to catch a glimpse of how wide a range of disciplines a president has to deal with.

Michael Novak, who lived in Johnstown, Indiana (Pa.), and McKeesport in his youth, is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Just Can’t Get Enough? Solzhenitsyn <a href="http://article.nationalreview.com/c/section/tinymce/jscripts/tiny_mce/once gave a commencement address. Dave Shiflett was never asked to give one, but did anyway. Colleen Carroll Campbell wonders if there is room for Catholic teaching at a Catholic commencement. Kathryn Lopez says “Welcome to the Real World.”


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